Disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor or psychologist. This article on depression on alcohol is restricted to my experience only and what I did about it. If you have a drinking problem and/or are depressed, please consult a physician and/or a therapist.
Unfortunately for me, alcoholism and depression went hand-in-hand when I got sober. When I first quit drinking (I quite twice, first for 3 years, and now I’ve been sober going on 10 years), I became an emotional wreck.
When I was drinking, especially in high school and college, it was the greatest activity in the world (or so I thought). It also prevented me from dealing with anything real. I didn’t stress out much at all. I just cared about drinking. I certainly wasn’t depressed then except I did have bouts of depression after drinking alcohol when I blacked out. In fact, toward the end of my drinking, I was more and more frequently depressed after drinking alcohol. This was a result of my increasing shame over my worsening behavior.
Then I quit drinking and emotions hit me like a wrecking ball. I didn’t know what to do. I slept a lot. I suffered terrible depression after I quit drinking alcohol. I had days and weeks where I dwelled in a cesspool of self-pity. I was filled with fear about the future. I had no confidence. I had no motivation. This was a nice welcome to sobriety. In many ways, I felt a lot worse in my early stages of sobriety than I did in my drinking
I know I was depressed. It was terrible. I had been an active person; a happy person (albeit a drunk person as well). Now I was a shell of what I perceived to be my former self.
I went to A.A., but remained miserable. I was impatient to achieve happy sobriety but it just wouldn’t come. This dark period lasted for 3 years. I went out drinking again for two years. Those two years of drinking were horrendous.
Anyway, I was plagued with alcoholism, depression, anxiety and loneliness during this time. I didn’t want to accept these horrendous emotions. Fortunately, the depression lifted when I returned to A.A. the second time. I built up my life. I went on anti-depressants for six months, which helped kick-start my mood improvement. They worked somewhat. I didn’t remain on anti-depressants, but I do credit them with helping me move forward. Below I set out 12 things you can do to deal with your depression in sobriety, based on 12 things I did which worked.
Here’s my deal with the depression
I didn’t want to admit it. I had enough trouble perceiving my alcoholism as a stigma. I also attached a stigma to depression. Basically, I wallowed in shame about what I considered weaknesses. However, once I accepted my alcoholism (stopped asking why and how) and my depression, I took giant steps toward zen sobriety.
You see, my dwelling on the stigma magnified the problem. I was in a self-fulfilling cycle of shame and fear. When I dropped the stigma stinkin’ thinkin’ all together, I got made some great progress. I got motivated and did the 12 steps. I made some friends (a difficult thing for me to do being an introvert), and I started building a life.
I’m not saying all people with depression should take medication or stop taking medication. I’m of the view depression is real, but treatment for each person will be different. Do what works for you.
My point is accept the crap. Accept the depression. Accept the alcoholism. Accept whatever garbage you have. Then resolve to get beyond it. Let go of the stigma and shame. Shame keeps us anchored in the garbage and prevents moving toward zen sobriety.
What came first? The egg or the chicken?
I started drinking early in life. Therefore, I don’t have memories of being depressed before I started drinking. However, I was never a happy-go-lucky person. I’m a serious person. Drinking brought levity to my life. I could escape the seriousness, my ambition; alcohol took the edge off. Like many alcoholics, drinking worked really well at first. It worked so well I wanted to drink all the time. I didn’t, but I sure drank a lot.
I suspect, looking back that I had depression tendencies before I started drinking. When I quit drinking, depression hit me like a brick wall. All that stuffing it down with booze brought my depressed mood pouring forth when the booze stopped flowing.
Are people who are prone to depression and turn to alcohol more prone to being depressed when quitting drinking? Are people prone to depression more likely to turn to alcohol?
In my experience, the answer is yes to both questions.
3 ways depression and alcoholism go hand-in-hand
- Isolated depression after drinking alcohol
- Depression as one of many alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- Alcohol is used to medicate depression
1. Isolated depression after drinking alcohol
In my early years of drinking, I never felt depressed after drinking alcohol. I woke up feeling pretty good. I didn’t black out during those first years. However, as my alcoholism progressed and my black outs increased in frequency, I started suffering bouts of depression after getting drunk. Some days I would be so paralyzed emotionally that I couldn’t get out of bed. It was horrendous.
The only way to stop these isolated bouts of depression was to stop drinking. I knew this. In fact, it was this increasing depression after nights of drinking that prompted me to stop drinking.
Alcohol is a depressant which “lowers or depresses arousal levels and reduces excitability.” “A descending BAC [blood alcohol level] corresponds to a decrease in vigor and an increase in fatigue, relaxation, confusion, and depression.”
2. Depression as an alcohol withdrawal symptom
Studies reveal that depression is indeed a withdrawal symptom. Sometimes the depression lifts once withdrawal symptoms lift, but other times depression lingers. Either way, get treatment for both alcohol dependency and depression.
3. Alcohol to medicate depression
Alcohol radically alters mood. As blood alcohol level increases, one experiences elation, arousal, and heightened excitement. The result is one feels better, and certainly better than feeling depressed. Since alcohol, while blood alcohol levels rise, improve mood and mask depression, it’s used to medicate depression.
The natural consequence is that a person who is depressed and who used alcohol to medicate depression, will likely suffer depression when they quit drinking alcohol completely. This makes getting sober so difficult. But there is treatment available for both getting sober and dealing with depression.
Remember this: You are not the only recovering person who suffers from alcoholism. Alcoholism and depression are a very common combination, which makes sense because when alcohol works as medication, we use it for as long as it works. However, when alcohol ceases to work, or causes us more trouble than it’s worth, what we’re left with is depression. All you need to do is get sober and deal with your depression in sobriety.
12 things you can you do to deal with your alcoholism and depression?
I did all of the following, some sooner than others. In time, they worked to lift my depression and give me a very happy life in sobriety.
1. See a doctor / get medication
Don’t delay if you suffer depression. Get the help you need ASAP.
2. Get therapy
Therapy can help with your sobriety, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues tremendously. If you can afford it or it’s available via insurance, give it a try.
3. Continue with your recovery program (yes, it gets better)
In fact, as your sobriety improves, you’ll likely experience a release from depression. You may likely require depression medication, which is fine. However, continue with your recovery program and do it as best as you can. My recovery program is Alcoholics Anonymous.
I find having a sponsor to speak with very helpful. It’s an AA suggestion and is also used extensively in treatment centers. I know it’s humbling asking people to be a sponsor, but those people are there to help. It’s a suggestion in recovery because it helps.
4. Get social
I know when depressed the last thing you want to do is get social. However, being with friends and family helps tremendously. It sure helped me. When I got sober the second time, I found a great group of friends in AA. They are the greatest people in the world. They were instrumental in helping me get sober. We hung out a lot. They helped improve my self esteem and keep my depression at bay.
5. Do something you love
Find a hobby or some pursuit you always wanted to do, but didn’t because you drank. Now is the time to get interested in something that you can be passionate about. It can be anything (other than drinking and doing drugs).
6. Get healthy
Exercise, eating better and sleeping better can help depression big time. Exercise was part of my arsenal to deal with my depression after getting sober.
7. Set and achieve goals
One of my problems when I quit drinking is that I felt that I was going nowhere in life. I was aimless and had no goals. What I did was set some small goals and achieved them. Those small successes helped build up my self-confidence which made me feel better.
8. Be patient
You didn’t ruin your life with alcohol overnight. Recovery and improving your mental health takes time. Be patient and do something each day that will get you one step to feeling better.
9. Have faith
Going to AA meetings really helped me have faith that staying sober was worth it, despite the pain I felt at the time. I listened intently to people who also suffered depression and low self-esteem in early sobriety, but overcame it and now have wonderful lives. Those people saved my life and inspired me.
In fact, I hope this blog and this blog post inspires you. I suffered horribly in early sobriety, and at times I never thought it would get better, but it did. It wasn’t easy, but it sure was worth it.
10. Be honest with yourself and treatment providers
Frankly, it’s bad enough to realize you’re an alcoholic. Admitting you’re depressed is twisting the knife. However, if you aren’t honest with yourself and with those trying to help you, you can’t get the help you need. Dump your ego and get honest … only in this way can you get the help you need.
11. Change careers/jobs
Don’t knee-jerk this decision. Wait a while in sobriety before you start taking out hefty student loans and/or quitting a good job. However, if your career is not fulfilling, start thinking about a career change. Be sure to talk to people about this because it’s a big step, but if you hate your work, getting different work can help relieve your depression.
When I quit drinking, I was a waiter in a restaurant. This was a great job when drinking because there was a party every night after work. When I got sober, the party perk didn’t work for me anymore. I decided to enroll in a post-graduate program and haven’t looked back since.
12. Improve your financial situation
Being broke and struggling to pay bills is traumatic and stressful. Now that you aren’t drinking your money away, you can save money and rebuild your financial life. Being rich doesn’t mean you won’t be depressed, but removing financial stress can help.
I’m not rich, and sometimes unexpected bills stress me out (my wife and I had our first child a little over a year ago), but I earn decent money and enjoy a good standard of living. Building a sound financial future is something I’m working on and enjoy … plus it helps remove stressors.
Is it okay to take anti-depressants in sobriety?
It’s inconceivable to me that some people in recovery believe that one shouldn’t rely on prescription medication to deal with medical conditions. In my view, if you suffer from a medical condition such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain or some other condition for which there’s proven medication, you can take it and consider yourself sober … as long as you take it per doctor’s orders.
When you’re sober, you’re still human. If you need medical attention, please get it. In fact, if you’re depressed and you can’t seem to shake it while sober, you just might be at higher risk for relapsing, which should be avoided at all costs. Therefore, if medication can help you stay sober and feel better, by all means talk to a doctor and get the help you need.
That said, medication is not a substitute for a recovery program. Yes, you might feel better on medication and think “wow, I feel great, I don’t need a recovery program.” This mindset should be avoided. In my view and personal experience, taking medically prescribed medication and working a recovery program (I attend Alcoholics Anonymous) worked for me.
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 Lopresti AL, Hood SD, Drummond PD. A review of lifestyle factors that contribute to important pathways associated with major depression: Diet, sleep and exercise. J Affect Disord. 2013 Feb 14. pii: S0165-0327(13)00069-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.01.014.